Review: Masterpiece Comics hardcover (Drawn and Quarterly)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

[Continuing Doug Glassman's "Indie-Pendence Month"; Doug also Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

One could call Drawn and Quarterly the Canadian version of Fantagraphics, publishing works from graphic novelists such as Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes. They also produce anthologies such as the self-titled Drawn and Quarterly, Snake and Bacon, and Tales Designed to Thrizzle.

Drawn and Quarterly stories have a sophisticated and subversive sense of humor that immediately drew me in. I want to thank Comics Should Be Good for introducing me to Drawn and Quarterly in general and the works of Robert “R.” Sikoryak in particular. After publishing his spoof cartoons in a variety of publications over the years, Drawn and Quarterly collected them all in the aptly-titled book Masterpiece Comics.

Spoof humor is my favorite kind of humor; I grew up on Mel Brooks films and can quote Spaceballs religiously. Similarly, as an English major, I’m an avid reader . . . and on occasion, I like to see certain books get some overdue mocking. R. Sikoryak combined three of my favorite genres -- spoof, classic literature and comic books -- by illustrating famous books in the styles of various comic book artists and characters. The variety of styles here is absolutely astounding. His takes on literature range from the Bible to Crime and Punishment, while the comic book styles include Bazooka Joe bubblegum comics, classic Action Comics covers, and even Beavis and Butthead.

This wide range of material means that there’s a joke in Masterpiece Comics for everyone. For instance, I’ve never read a Little Lulu comic. However, I have read The Scarlet Letter numerous times thanks to high school and college English classes. By combining the two into “Hester’s Little Pearl," I can get into the comic’s humor using the literature as a base. To go in reverse, while I’ve never read Crime and Punishment, Sikoryak’s use of Batman to illustrate the novel’s characters in “Dostoyevsky Comics” and themes makes it far more accessible. Admittedly, I’m not sure I could ever read Crime and Punishment now without thinking of the Landlady looking like the Joker.

Structurally, the book starts with some shorter stories based on newspaper comics, such as “Blond Eve” (a combination of The Bible and Blondie) and “Mac Worth” (Macbeth/Mary Worth). My favorite out of this section is “Inferno Joe," which tells the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy through ten tiny comics. If any comic in Masterpiece Comics serves as a test of whether the concept can work, it’s “Inferno Joe," and it may be my favorite adaptation of Dante in comics. Sikoryak uses the tiny ads beneath the comic and the included fortunes to further the adaptation. The only one that seems to fall flat is “Candiggy” (Candide/Ziggy), which doesn’t seem to use either source material to its potential.

The next part is “The Crypt of Bronte," rendering Wuthering Heights in the style of EC Comics. From the Housekeeper stylized into the Cryptkeeper narrator to the constant wide-eyed expressions, Sikoryak hits all of the beats perfectly. “Hester’s Little Pearl” earns quite a few points for the ridiculous strapped-on beard worn by Chillingsworth in reference to how he looked in the novel. “Dostoyevsky Comics” utilizes red arrows to explain the panel structure on the page, something that often happened in Golden Age comics. “Little Dori in Pictureland” (The Picture of Dorian Gray/Little Nemo) flips the book vertically to get in a full 22-panel comic.

“Good ol’ Gregor Brown” (The Metamorphosis/Peanuts) is the first story from Masterpiece Comics that I ever saw, and for only a two-page, ten-strip comic, it works in just about everything short of Snoopy’s novel. Another personal favorite is “Action Camus” (The Stranger/Action Comics), which is done entirely through covers. I was a member of the Allspark Forum when Mike Miksch started the concept of “Superman is a dick," and retelling The Stranger through “Superdickery” is just incredibly apt. The last story, “Waiting To Go” (Waiting For Godot/Beavis and Butthead) breaks from the format by using animation instead of comics, but Sikoryak nails the timing on the dialogue.

What’s truly impressive is the constant shifting of art styles. Changing styles is always a neat addition to a comic book when it’s done right; Chris Warner, for instance, shifted into a Silver Age style for segments of The American set in that period. Sikoryak goes above and beyond by imitating at least fifteen different famous artists. Some are a little looser than others; “Dostoyevsky Comics” in particular is a combination of Dick Sprang and Wayne Boring, but the tone is just right. “Mephistofield” (Faust/Garfield) and “Good ol’ Gregor Brown” could easily pass for work done by Jim Davis and Charles Schulz. It’s the comic book equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic: the art matches the original much in the same way that Weird Al’s music sounds nearly identical to the subject of his parody.

Along with the stories, Sikoryak throws in parodies of famous comic book ads. A drawing school ad asks you to “Draw Homer!," while a spoof of “Grit” advertises “Lit," complete with tantalizing prizes. Homemade toy kits are taken to the extreme with the “Pequod Whaling Ship” replica for only $6.98 (complete with launching coffin). There are also two “Masterpiece Queries” pages which explain the jokes without mentioning the names of the original sources. I’m not sure if this is a stylistic choice or an attempt to avoid legal issues, but they give curious readers just enough information to figure it out.

At twenty dollars for a rather rare 65-page coffee table book, Masterpiece Comics is a bit expensive. Luckily, you can likely find it in your local library. However, if you’re a literary geek like me, you’ll find a lot to enjoy, and the craftsmanship involved is more than worth the price.
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